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NSF I-Corps at Illinois helped teams raise $42 million


Mike Koon, Marketing and Communications Coordinator

Since 2013, fledgling startups who have come through I-Corps at Illinois have raised millions of dollars, firmly establish successful companies, hired employees, and launched products. 

“The I-Corps program accelerates the technology commercialization process by helping researchers validate technology and ensuring they are developing technology and products that industry cares about,” explained Jed Taylor, Director of Operations for the Technology Entrepreneur Center (TEC).

Through programs like the TEC and the Illinois Research Park’s incubator, EnterpriseWorks, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign built a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem on campus. The ecosystem is an engine of economic growth for the University and the State of Illinois. The National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps program has been central to that success.

The TEC recently released numbers that illustrate the impact of the four-year investment, which has included $300,000 from NSF and $30,000 from the TEC and EnterpriseWorks. In four years, 120 teams received evidence-based entrepreneurship education through the Illinois I-Corps site, representing nearly 300 students and faculty from across seven Colleges and 22 departments. Those teams in turn went on to raise more than $42 million in external funding. Teams have hired more than 130 employees, mostly from the State of Illinois. To put that in perspective, for every one dollar invested in the program, teams raised an additional $129.

For many years, the NSF has sponsored Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants to spur research into viable commercial products. While venture capitalists are generally looking to invest in businesses that are more well developed, SBIR allows startups to explore their technology in an effort to get to that point.

The I-Corps program serves as a precursor to SBIR to “develop and nurture a national innovation ecosystem that builds upon research to guide the output of scientific discoveries closer to the development of technologies, products and processes that benefit society.”

Faculty and students working on STEM-related technology can participate in the Illinois I-Corps site which through $2,000 and three workshops over six weeks, teams work to validate the market size, value propositions, and customer segments of their innovations.

Upon completion of the program, teams are in position to apply to the National I-Corps program, which includes $50,000 dollars and a rigorous 7-week program, or perhaps apply for an SBIR award.

Of the $42 million in external funding created by I-Corps at Illinois graduates, $11 million has come from SBIR grants, $28.5 million has been from venture capitalists or angel investors, and $3 million from other sources. To date, 23 companies have raised at least $100,000.

A high percentage of teams that have come through I-Corps at Illinois have been healthcare related technologies, such as Photonicare, which has developed an improved handheld imaging tool that will enable physicians to quickly and accurately diagnose middle ear infections during routine examinations. Some are energy related, like Sun Buckets, which has created a solar-powered stove being marketed to underdeveloped countries. Others, like  Petronics, are refining a technology to meet a market need. Petronics’ automated cat toy, Mousr, will begin delivery in February.

“I Corps helped to provide our company with the general understanding of the business model that we should pursue,” said Leanne Labriola, President of Innsight Technology, Inc., which is developing novel ophthalmic devices to address unmet needs within clinical ophthalmology. “As the course progressed, we were able to conduct an extensive customer need analysis and explore a product market fit which provided important strategic insights for our product development. The ability to present clear business plans to potential investors has offered a clear advantage for our company and changed our trajectory.”

“The Illinois iCorps program was a great exercise for Electroninks,” said co-founder Brett Walker, whose company is developing inks and products for consumer electronics. “There’s nothing more important than direct customer interaction and understanding your marketplace. The iCorps program heavily emphasizes this aspect which is key to an early understanding of the strategy for a business.”

Last fall, Illinois expanded its reach by announcing a partnership with three other universities across the region with strong engineering programs. In addition to Illinois, the $3.5 million NSF Midwest I-Corps node, includes the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Purdue University, and the University of Toledo.

Taylor iterates that I-Corps’ impact goes far beyond simply helping startups get off the ground.

“I-Corps has showcased our role in commercializing research out of labs and the University's role in economic development in the Midwest,” he said.